Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, a documentary about the legendary character actor, has recently been released by Swiss filmmaker Sophie Huber. It’s an intimate portrayal of the man who was born in Kentucky in 1926, and went west to become a familiar face in such TV shows as Rawhide, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel, Bat Masterson, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, The Fugitive, The Untouchables, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and HBO’s Big Love. Among his films are Cool Hand Luke; Alien; Repo Man; Paris, Texas; Pretty in Pink; The Godfather, Part II; The Last Temptation of Christ; and The Green Mile. In the documentary, David Lynch, Wim Wenders, Sam Shepard, Kris Kristofferson, and Deborah Harry talk about working with him, and Stanton responds to questions tersely. But the heart of the documentary is his singing, as he looks straight into the camera with his well-worn face and soulful eyes.
Question: You recently celebrated your 87th birthday—what have you learned, and have you given up any of the old vices?
Harry Dean Stanton: That we’re not in charge of our lives and there are no answers to anything. It’s a divine mystery. Buddhism, Taoism, the Jewish Kabbalah—it’s all the same thing, but once it gets organized it’s over. You have to just accept everything. I’m still smoking a pack a day. I only drink when I go out, which is rarely. And I miss sex, which is down to hardly ever. But I’m in good shape. No problems yet.
Q: Was it Jack Nicholson who gave you your acting credo?
HDS: Yeah. Be yourself and let the wardrobe do the character. [Laughs.] That was good. I’ve been doing it for over 50 years. I’m tired of movies. But I like to do it when I do it. The best directors leave you alone. They know when they hire you what you can do. I used to talk to Marlon Brando for hours on the telephone. He taught me a couple of Shakespeare monologues over the phone. Sometimes he’d hang up on me. Just screwing with me. He had a class he taught with young actors, and he had me teach it one time when he wasn’t there. I was his substitute teacher. What made Brando and Monty Clift so great was they played themselves. That’s what I do, too. It’s easy. No matter what I’m doing, I’m still Harry Dean Stanton. Even if you’re Olivier, you’re still yourself.
Q: How are you spending your days?
HDS: I watch TV a lot. Game shows. The History Channel. Court TV. Biographies. Once in a while sports. I used to play poker but I stopped because I was in this game every week for a long time and I lost a whole lot of money—a couple of hundred thousand dollars over four years. I shouldn’t have played in it. I don’t think the game was all that straight. But it is what it is. There are no answers.